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Radiotherapy| treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays to destroy as many cancer cells as possible, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. It only works in the area of the body where the x-rays are targeted
Radiotherapy is used less often than surgery| or chemotherapy |in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. It is sometimes used to treat pancreatic cancer that hasn’t spread but can’t be removed by surgery. In this situation, it may be used together with chemotherapy (chemoradiation) to shrink the cancer and keep it under control for as long as possible.
Radiotherapy can also be given to relieve symptoms caused by the cancer. This is called palliative radiotherapy. It is most likely to be used to treat pain. It works by shrinking the tumour, relieving the pressure that is causing the pain. Palliative radiotherapy is given at lower doses than radiotherapy used to control the cancer, and is usually given as a shorter course of treatment that is less likely to cause side effects.
Radiotherapy is given in the hospital radiotherapy department. How the treatment is given varies, depending on your particular needs. Sometimes a single treatment is all that is needed, or a course of therapy may be given as a series of short daily sessions. Each treatment takes 10–15 minutes. A course of treatment is usually given daily Monday–Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Your doctor will discuss the treatment and possible side effects with you.
Radiotherapy has to be carefully planned to make sure it’s as effective as possible. It is planned by a cancer specialist (clinical oncologist) and it may take a few visits. On your first visit to the radiotherapy department, you’ll be asked to have a CT scan or lie under a machine called a simulator, which takes x-rays of the area to be treated.
Marks are usually drawn on your skin to help the radiographer (who gives you your treatment) position you accurately and to show where the rays will be directed. These marks must stay visible throughout your treatment, and permanent marks (like tiny tattoos) may be used. These are extremely small, and will only be done with your permission. It may be a little uncomfortable while they are done.
At the beginning of each session of radiotherapy, the radiographer will position you carefully on the couch, and make sure that you are comfortable. During your treatment you'll be alone in the room, but you can talk to the radiographer, who will watch you from the next room. Radiotherapy is not painful, but you have to lie still for a few minutes during the treatment.
External radiotherapy does not make you radioactive and it is perfectly safe for you to be with other people, including children, after your treatment.
Positioning the radiotherapy machine
View a large copy of the illustration of positioning the radiotherapy machine|
Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer can cause side effects such as feeling sick |(nausea), vomiting|, diarrhoea| and tiredness|. These side effects are usually mild and depend on how much treatment you are having. Your cancer specialist will be able to advise you what to expect and can prescribe you treatments to relieve sickness and diarrhoea if needed.
Our radiotherapy section| tells you more about this treatment and its side effects
Content last reviewed: 1 December 2010
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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